The Middle East Channel

Bahrain reforms “inadequate” ahead of Grand Prix

Human rights organization Amnesty International released a report on Tuesday condemning Bahrain's failure to implement political reforms the country had committed to after its crackdown on last year's uprisings. The report was issued before Bahrain is scheduled to host the prestigious Formula 1 Grand Prix. According to Amnesty's Middle East and North Africa deputy director, Hassiba Hadj Sahraoui, "With the world's eyes on Bahrain as it prepares to host the Grand Prix, no one should be under any illusions that the country's human rights crisis is over." Demonstrators have gathered in recent days to protest the holding of the race and call for the release of Abdulhadi al-Khawaja, a Shiite activist sentenced to life in prison who has been on a hunger strike for nearly 50 days. Violent clashes have escalated over the past week between security forces and protesters. The February 14 youth activist group has called for "three days of rage" from Friday to Sunday. In November 2011, Bahrain's King Hamad commissioned the Bahrain Independent Commission of Inquiry (BICI) report noting human rights abuses and torture. A spokesperson from Bahrain's Information Affairs Authority said that, "sweeping and significant reforms have taken place over the past year and are still ongoing." However, Amnesty International stated it continues to receive reports of excessive use of force and torture, claiming reforms have been inadequate and have "only scratched the surface."

Syria

Six United Nations observers have begun a peacekeeping mission in Syria, attempting to enforce a five-day old truce. Twenty-four additional monitors tasked with aiding the implementation of the United Nations and Arab League envoy Kofi Annan's six-point peace plan will join the initial observers. According to Ahmad Fawzi, Annan's spokesman, the mission "will start with setting up operating headquarters and reaching out to the Syrian government and the opposition forces so that both sides fully understand" their roles. Annan is hoping to expand the mission to 200 observers, a number which many still consider insufficient. According to the United States' envoy to the United Nations, Susan Rice, multiple reports of violence could jeopardize the mission: "Should the violence persist and the ceasefire, or cessation of violence more aptly, not hold, that...will call into question the wisdom and the viability of sending in the full monitoring presence." The British-based Syrian Observatory for Human Rights reported that Syrian forces carried out raids in the Hama province village of Khattab on Monday and clashes broke out in the northwestern Idlib province. According to activists, heavy shelling continued in the opposition held Bayada and Khalidiya districts of Homs. Meanwhile, United Nations human rights investigators said they have received reports of the execution of soldiers captured by opposition forces. United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stated this week will be critical for evaluating the peace plan, elaborating that the United States is optimistic but is making alternative plans if there is a breakdown in the ceasefire. Annan is headed to Doha on Tuesday to consult with the Arab League on next steps.

Headlines

  • Around 1,200 Palestinian inmates have begun an open-ended hunger strike and 2,300 will refuse food for a day marking Prisoners' Day, a day of protest against detainment without trail and "humiliating" treatment.
  • Egypt's election commission is expected to decide on Tuesday which of the appeals will be reviewed from three leading presidential contenders disqualified from running.
  • Iraq's Chief of the Independent High Electoral Commission, Faraj al-Haidari, was arrested on corruption charges throwing into question what were believed to be free and fair elections.

Arguments & Analysis

False Witnesses (The Daily Star)

"With the first of the U.N. observers having arrived to Syria, and regime violence showing no sign of abating, it is becoming apparent that the Security Council mission has little to no purpose. Since the "cease-fire," backed by the United Nations, came into effect Thursday, activists say around 55 people, mostly civilians, have been killed across the country, with Monday bringing news of continued shelling in several cities. It appears that this U.N. mission, sold as an integral part of Kofi Annan's six-point plan, is more of the same, and perhaps even more dangerous: masking as it does the real extent of the violence and killings, with the observers on a guided tour of the country's calm spots, having been warned that they bear responsibility for their own safety should they stray from the sightseeing tour."

Paradoxes of "Religious Freedom" in Egypt (Tamir Moustafa and Asifa Quraishi-Landes, Jadaliyya)

"The place of religion in the political order is arguably the most contentious issue in post-Mubarak Egypt. With Islamist-oriented parties controlling over 70 percent of seats in the new People's Assembly and the constitution-writing process about to begin, liberals and leftists are apprehensive about the implications for Egyptian law and society, including the rights of Egypt's millions of Coptic Christians. Mindful of these anxieties and pragmatic in its approach, the Muslim Brotherhood's Freedom and Justice Party (FJP) has backed away from earlier calls for an "Islamic state." Its 2011 election platform opts instead to promote the sharia as a "frame of reference. " Working hard to assuage anxieties both at home and abroad, the Party explicitly calls for a "civil state" and repeatedly stresses the importance of equality of citizenship among Muslims and Christians."

Alert: Bahrain (The International Crisis Group)
"Beneath a façade of normalisation, Bahrain is sliding toward another dangerous eruption of violence. The government acts as if partial implementation of recommendations from the November 2011 Independent Commission of Inquiry (the Bassiouni Report) will suffice to restore tranquillity, but there is every reason to believe it is wrong. Political talks -- without which the crisis cannot be resolved -- have ground to a halt, and sectarian tensions are mounting. A genuine dialogue between the regime and the opposition and a decision to fully carry out the Bassiouni Report -- not half-hearted measures and not a policy of denial -- are needed to halt this deterioration."

--Mary Casey & Jennifer Parker

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The Middle East Channel

Egypt's transition imbroglio

The phrase "Egyptian transition process" has become tragicomically oxymoronic in light of the dizzying series of developments over the past month. More metaphorically, events have driven entire herds of elephants stampeding through every legal and constitutional loophole in Egypt's makeshift interim political system.

There are, to be sure, some rules. In the seven weeks following former President Hosni Mubarak's forced departure last year, a series of policy statements by the Supreme Council of the Armed Forces (SCAF), a set of constitutional amendments developed by an ad hoc committee appointed by the SCAF and approved in a referendum, and a "constitutional declaration" drafted secretly and proclaimed by the SCAF collectively laid out a set of procedures for rebuilding the Egyptian political order. Those procedures have largely been followed. But they have led Egypt into a state of complete confusion.

The combination of eccentric elements (such as the disqualification of anyone whose parents ever held foreign citizenship from the presidency) and unexpected gaps and omissions (such as the failure to specify any sequence of presidential elections and constitution writing or the silence on the ways in which the parliament was authorized to exercise oversight of the cabinet) scattered a series of landmines throughout the path. Making things worse was the way in which critical administering, governing, and adjudicating bodies were (or have come to be seen) as deeply interested or partisan actors -- the parliament as the arm of Islamists, the SCAF as wedded to a set of political and material interests, the State Council as willing to seize any opportunity to pursue its ambitious understanding of its judicial role, and even the presidential election commission as a body headed by the constitutional court's chief justice, a figure seen as close to the military and security establishment. And the postponement of critical questions -- security sector reform, for instance -- has aggravated matters still further. 

Yes, there are rules. But if the word "process" has any meaning left, it cannot be applied to Egyptian politics today. 

Perhaps "landmines" is the wrong explosive metaphor. Instead, since all of these problems were laid down a year ago, one might better turn to Anton Chekhov's advice to dramatists: "If in the first act you have hung a pistol on the wall, then in the following one it should be fired." The second act of Egypt's revolution consists not of a single gunshot, however. In the past few weeks, Egyptians have broken into the armory so heavily stocked a year ago and shot off all pistols at once.

So who hung all the pistols on Egypt's walls? Here is where the Chekovian metaphor breaks down because there is no playwright in sight. Nobody put the rich set of weapons there with any clear plot in mind, reigning speculation notwithstanding. But three parties seem to have done most of the work.

First, the eight-member committee that hurriedly drafted the constitutional amendments at the core of the "process" was very restricted in its focus and therefore developed proposals that left key questions unanswered. But while handpicked by the SCAF, it does not seem to have been doing the SCAF's bidding in any mechanical sense. In personal interviews I conducted, two members were very explicit (and consistent with each other) on the minimal guidance they received from Egypt's interim military rulers. There were certain articles they were asked to amend but not in any clear way; there were also a few other amendments that they offered at their own initiative.

Second, the revolutionary leaders were so elated last February by Mubarak's departure that they did not contest SCAF control for a considerable period. By all appearances, they really believed that the army and people were "one hand" until it was too late to dislodge the army from playing an overbearing role. When the revolutionaries finally developed a serious (and likely wise) proposal for an interim presidency council to rule the country instead of the SCAF, they pursued it in no coherent manner. And they coupled it with an attempt to delay elections on the explicit (and excessively honest) argument that the Islamists would likely do well as soon as Egyptians went to the polls. By seeking to delay voting on such blatantly partisan grounds, they contributed to a polarized situation (a contribution soon matched by the Islamists) which has made a more consensual approach virtually impossible.

Finally, the lion's share of responsibility lies with the SCAF's generals who pursued an approach that was politically and legally incoherent. It was not one that has always served their interests very well, but they have been powerless to change it (as was clearly demonstrated by the failure of an apparent -- and audacious -- attempt to parachute in some "supraconstitutional principles" serving the SCAF's vision last fall).

Hope for a transition to a more pluralist and democratic Egypt has certainly not died. Egypt's saving graces -- the fact that the gunfire is mostly metamorphic; the continued strength of its political institutions, however deeply corrupted and implicated many are; and the inability of any single political actor to dominate the country -- may still carry it through.

But the lack of any controlling process or authority may make Egypt's political actors feel a bit like they are not only living in a Chekhov drama or deafened by the volley at the OK Corral but also as if they are trapped in Luigi Pirandello's "Six Characters in Search of an Author."

Nathan J. Brown is a professor of political science and international affairs at George Washington University and nonresident senior associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

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